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Michelle Duff: It's 2017, and there's sex trafficking in NZ

She was 15. So were we. What could we say?

OPINION: It started with the smallest thing. We were sitting in her room, and she pulled out a bundle of $20 notes. "Where did you get that?" I asked. She laughed.

I had been friends with Stephanie* for years. But all of a sudden she had a new friend; a girl from a neighbouring city who was older and more streetwise. They were hanging out a lot in the weekends, catching the bus down to Wellington together.

We were 15 years old, at high school in a typical New Zealand town. In our spare time we played netball, or went to each others' houses. We got friend's older siblings to buy us Purple Goannas and Miami Coolers and we went to parties and smoked the odd joint.

It was midway through fifth form (Year 11) when I found out the reason Stephanie could afford so many new clothes was because she was employed as a sex worker.

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This week, Wellington-based researcher Natalie Thorburn has spoken about her research into teenage sex workers in New Zealand, saying there is a rising demand for the developing adolescent as a sex object. She spoke to dozens of sex workers, aged 12 to 16, who had been driven into sex work.

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If you think this is hard to believe, it's time to take the blinkers off.

My friend Stephanie wasn't going down to Wellington to "babysit", as she initially told us. She was going to work in a brothel, having sex with much older men for money. Wrinkly men, fat men, white men, Asian men; she told us about them all, laughing. She made it sound funny, and kind of exciting.

Of course we were shocked. We were worried about her. But we didn't say anything to our parents because it would have violated the code that exists between teenage friends, and because,as crazy as this seems to write now, she appeared to be coping just fine.

Also, and this might sound callous, but I don't know that her parents would have cared. Her family situation was complicated, to say the least.

But of course she wasn't OK. On her 16th birthday, she turned up at my house and we lay together in my bedroom, hugging, while my pillow grew wet with her tears.

At the time, I didn't really understand.

Now I understand. She was a young, vulnerable girl from a broken home who was being exploited by adults driven by profits, people older, more calculating and manipulative than she was. She was being coerced into having sex for money with unknown men, men four times her age. She was being sexually violated.

That was in 1998. This is now. Girls in this country who are barely through puberty are being forced into sex work because, and here's the key thing - there is a demand for it.

What kind of messed-up society are we living in that this is happening? That adolescent girls are seen as sex objects? That prepubescent sex and violence are an accepted part of mainstream pornography?

That families are so poor - materially and morally - that they would condone a pimp-prostitute relationship between a 13-year-old and a 28-year-old, a not-uncommon situation Thorburn outlines in her research?

I'm sorry, Stephanie. I wish we had told someone about you. But we didn't and we couldn't; we were only girls.

It's hard, growing up in a world where young women are blamed for the very fact of their sexuality, instead of taught their growing womanhood is a precious and beautiful thing that belongs to them, and not a commodity.

It hard when young girls who are used and abused are somehow made to believe it's their fault.

Now I am a woman, and I can finally say; this shit has got to stop. If you know a young woman - or man - who you think is being exploited, who is being coerced into sex work or any kind of sex, then please speak up. Their lives, our lives, are worth more than that.

I'm sorry, Stephanie.

Michelle Duff is a weekly columnist for Stuff.
 

*Name has been changed.

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, please call the HELP line on (09) 623 1700 or Rape Crisis on 0800 88 33 00 for advice.

Stuff.co.nz

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